Prison Pen Pals Chip Away at the Prison-Industrial Complex One Letter at a Time

Delaware joins the Union on April 4, 2022 dozens of prisons in 18 other statesThe prison system will stop receiving physical mail. The policy would forceIt is expensive to communicate via digital platforms with loved ones, activists, etc. Monica Cosby, a grandmother and activist with Moms United Against Violence and Incarceration was formerly incarcerated. said on the podcast Beyond Prisons that these policies are “decidedly cruel and intended to harm.” Receiving mail is a critical point of support for people on the inside.

More people are now interested in working for a world without prisons and police since the 2020 uprisings. This goal can be achieved in many ways.

Ella Rosenberg is a Knox College Chapter member Young Democratic Socialists of AmericaA section of the Democratic Socialists of America which has college chapters and is working towards a mass labor movement. She said that her peers are becoming more aware about prison abolition and that it led them to want to find out more about the Hill Correctional Center, which is located in Galesburg, Illinois.

“If we on the outside don’t make the effort to make these connections, then they’re never going to get made, because that’s the point [of the system], is to cut people off,” Rosenberg says. “I think by writing these letters, a little bit, it is breaking down that barrier. And it’s bringing the people in prison back into the community where they live.”

Rosenberg says this is why she was insistent on writing to the men in the Hill Correctional Center, in particular: “This is the prison in our town. We’re writing to these guys because they’re right here.”

Rosenberg has been writing to her pen pal, Kevin “AK” Hemingway, for just over a year now. Hemingway shared the following: Truthout that when Rosenberg first wrote to him, it was “unexpected that a person like that would reach out,” and that he even wondered if perhaps she wanted to study him. They have developed a trusting, mutually beneficial relationship over time that is able to take advantage of their differences. Hemingway says, “She taught me how to be a friend. I didn’t know how to be a friend with a woman.”

Long before 2020, Abolitionists exchanged letters as part their everyday political practice. Black and Pink is a national organization that aims to abolish the criminal punishment system and liberate LGBTQIA2S+ persons and HIV/AIDS people. It was founded in 2005. Black and Pink coordinates the current activities of a national databaseAround 20,000 people are looking for pen pals from prison.

Andrea Kszystyniak, who helps run Black and Pink’s pen pal program and edits the organization’s newsletter, believes that for many people on the outside, pen palling can be “a radicalizing engine.” That’s because writers are forced to confront the full humanity and circumstances of the people they write to, and can easily see that prison “isn’t helping this person…. [It’s] a disabling agent, intentionally destroying people’s mental health.”

Like Rosenberg, Kszystyniak asserts that the prison-industrial complex “tries to completely erase people and systematically strips them from all of their support systems, until they’re completely alone.” After that, a person’s “will to fight will go quickly.”

Charley has been writing to their pen pal Charley for approximately five months as part the California Coalition of Women Prisoners Writing WarriorProject, which compares the work involved in letter writing to the principles participatory defense, a community organizing model that involves the families and communities facing charges in their legal defence. Charley says that “one of our most powerful resources for how to resist this system is to really pull together communities.” They add that this is an important form of resistance because the prison-industrial complex “just repackages the tactics that white supremacy used to colonize Africa and Turtle Island” and “banks on us giving up on keeping in contact with our loved ones, by painting them as bad people, and by creating situations that make it dangerous for us to keep in contact with them.”

Charley also noted that letter writing is an effective action that can be taken even by people who aren’t able or able protest in the streets. As a disabled person, Charley notes that it’s “a way that folks with chronic illnesses and disabled folks can get involved in abolition in a way that is really high impact.”

Letter writing can cut through isolation and bring people closer together through the physical, and figurative, walls that the prison-industrial compound builds. It also helps to keep people safer. Kszystyniak states that imprisoned persons who are not contacted by anyone or receive no mail from them could be considered vulnerable.

Prison also works to cut people off from information and to create a totalizing social environment where, without contact or affirmation from people outside, imprisoned people can begin to feel that the maze of regulations — and their irregular and punitive application — is just.

Reece Graham-Bey, my own pen pal of six years who is now formerly incarcerated, explained it this way: “The longer that you were in prison, the more sense it makes. You have a ready explanation [for the injustice you experience] because you’ve had it explained to you. It’s almost like being in a propaganda camp or a retraining camp.”

Charley described the importance of simply “reinforcing reality” in letters. Stephanie Hammerwold, a volunteer for the Writing Warriors program, shared her story. TruthoutThe COVID-19 vaccination was released and pen pals helped fill the information gap. This allowed people to make an informed decision about their health.

Letter writing and newsletters can be a valuable source of information for LGBTQ+ prisoners. Graham-Bey also stated that information about gender and feminist issues was very rare behind bars and that our letters were an important counterpoint for the misogyny, especially from the guards.

Information doesn’t just go into the prison, however, but also travels out. The outside world can see inside the prison by sending letters. As a result of Truthout’s request for interviews, one person from a California women’s prison responded, “Please let the world know how the prison are taking inmates whom are not [COVID] positive to quarantine units and placing them around other inmates whom are positive for their own self motives.”

Pen-palling relationships can often lead to advocacy. Anna Bauer, another Knox College member, recently put together a phone zapStrawberry Hampton is her pen pal. Bauer says that “our relationship has just come to be something that’s very meaningful and something that I really appreciate. I feel that our letter-writing has gone in two directions. I’ve been able to kind of act as a conduit with the outside with her.”

There are many obstacles to exchanging letters in any format.

There are the complicated regulations and the constant monitoring, costs and delays, especially as they relate to the for-profit proprietary messaging systemsLike ConnectNetwork and JPay. These systems work in a similar way to email, but each “page” of the message costs between $.15 and $.44 to send (without attachments, which are an additional page) and must be approved before it is delivered. Other states have also eliminated physical mail, as is the case with Delaware.

Hammerwold refers to these disruptions as a “JPay delay” because they are so regular, and says that her strategy is to let her pen pals know that if it takes her more than two days to respond, they should assume the delay is institutional. “I hate that that happens, because it erodes trust, and it’s something that’s beyond our control,” she says. “I don’t want that person to think I’ve given up.”

Many people claimed that messages about prison conditions are often censored. After Strawberry Hampton’s own message to TruthoutEbona, her sister, said that the blockage was not allowed. TruthoutDuring a phone conversation, it was discovered that messages that are blocked include details of incidents and inactions by top officials. Hampton is regularly subjected to racial and heterosexist slurs, has received death threats from corrections officers, and is unable to sign up for classes so she can get “good time” (earned time toward earlier release). This pattern was confirmed by other prisoners interviewed and by abolitionist organizers outside. Many imprisoned people relied heavily on family members to relay information or get in touch with them. Truthout for this story because of limitations in the prison’s communication systems.

Letter writing — and any communication to and from prison — exposes both parties to a certain level of surveillance, given that anyone writing in to a prison has to give their first and last name. The risk of retaliation for inside correspondents is higher, however. Interviewees cited instances in which they faced retaliation or barriers, even though some communications about activism, such as prison abolition are allowed into prisons.

“If you started to write to me about people who support prisoners, people who support prisoner education, people who support abolition, people who support strategies for different visions of justice, the prison goes on high alert in a way that you probably can’t imagine on the streets,” Graham-Bey says. “You know, the surveillance ups, they start doing rounds on you, they start watching you, they start making you feel uncomfortable, they start going through your cell, you know, and they randomly take you to [segregation] for invented infractions.”

However, loved ones and activists of incarcerated persons work daily to overcome these barriers. “I think it took incredible personal power, to pierce that kind of environment, and to reach into the place where I was at, and I could feel that power, in a sense of a real power, like a real person,” says Graham-Bey.

Letter writing is a way for writers to build relationships with one another. Letters allow strangers to communicate in an honest, human way to one another and to do healing work. Hemingway says that his friendship with Rosenberg was transformative, and that his friends inside “could see a difference in me.”

Ajani Walden, a staff member with Black and Pink and an outside letter writer, says, “We’re talking about freedom, we’re talking about community care, that is what pen palling is. I care about the person I’m writing [to], the person that’s writing cares about me. I mean, it doesn’t really get any simpler than that, right? Because this is really what we’re supposed to be doing. Caring for other people, communicating, mutually destroying systems.” Walden emphasizes the two-way nature of the relationship, saying, “There’s some times where my pen pal writes me a letter and they literally uplifted my day, you know, and I’m on the outside.”

Dude Ramirez, an inmate member of the Writing Warriors Program, wrote to Truthout, saying that having a pen pal “means someone is taking time to care about you and sharing their time with you.” According to Writing Warriors correspondent Araceli Peña, having a pen pal when you are inside “enables you to be able to vent to others and you’re able to talk with someone about anything and just feel completely comfortable. Sometimes a person is just able to share more with someone through paper and yeah, it’s harder to share face to face sometimes.”

Christopher Naeem Trotter, who is currently serving a de facto life sentence and is Kszystyniak’s pen pal, told Truthout in a letter that, “Without their friendship and support, I probably would had given up on struggling to liberate myself from this belly of the beast, and just accepted that fact that I was going to die inside this belly of the beast which would give these prisoncrats something to celebrate about…. Every day reminds me that, no matter how dark and difficult the days seem, there is always light that shines through to remind me that there are still loving and caring people in the world who care about other things. [themselves].”

Letters and relationships provide hope for all those involved and lay the foundation for strong organizing.

Graham-Bey says that it can be transformative for prisoners to learn that outsiders are involved in social movements and care about what is going on inside. He also believes that letters can be used as tangible, written, coherent arguments that are easily recited again and again to support political education within.

Anthropologist Orisanmi Burton has written recently that, “The slow and deliberate act of producing, circulating, and consuming letters is a contemplative practice generated from mutual investments of time, as well as emotional and intellectual labor, that has far reaching effects.”

If they are interested in organizing work, the insiders also benefit from knowing who’s out there to support them.

Meanwhile, abolitionists from the outside are fed by the analysis of their comrades from inside.

Kszystyniak says that letter writing is a good mechanism for “continued momentum toward abolition,” and highlights that “it’s super important that the folks inside are leading the movement.”

Trotter agrees, saying, “People on the outside must tune into their voices on paper because there are a lot of different ideas floating in these prisons. Sometime those ideas never get outside the prison gates because they have no one to write…. We need organizers on the outside to start reaching inside to prisoners getting prisoners ideas, learning what they are strategizing, because what happens on the inside affects what happens on the outside.”

Policies like the one found in Delaware eliminating physical mailAnother malicious attempt to further isolate or disappear people from our communities is the use of telemarketing. Cosby, reflecting on a time when she received a letter that smelled like her mother, said, “[Physical] letters don’t weigh much but at the same time they weigh everything.”